THROUGHOUT the American Revolution, the press in Britain portrayed the commander of the rebel army as a model of citizen virtue and an ideal military leader. Most press reports supported the effort to crush the rebellion and considered the Continental Congress a den of self-serving scoundrels but heaped praise on George Washington, the American Cincinnatus. The general personified the dilemma that faced many Britons during the conflict: he was a quintessential English-American gentleman, despite being the enemy. He represented much of what the British Atlantic community thought admirable while commanding an army in a cause that many Britons believed would ruin the empire. He had fought for king and country in the Seven Years’ War and had even served with a number of the British officers who commanded the king’s troops during the War of Independence. He was not from New England and so was not tarred with the radicalism most Britons associated with the region and blamed for the outbreak of hostilities. Nor was he a professional soldier. Instead, Washington was a successful member of Virginia’s planting elite, thus having much in common with the country gentlemen who dominated the House of Commons–more indeed than some of Britain’s own military leaders. His letters, printed in the newspapers, revealed a devotion to politeness and civic virtue that alone would have won him admiration in any British county society.
In recent years, significant attention has been paid to Washington’s image in colonial America and the newly formed United States. Yet little is known about how this early American hero was represented and discussed in Britain. Washington was ever conscious that his actions and demeanor would be heavily scrutinized and went to great pains to fashion himself as a gentlemanly citizen-soldier who had reluctantly left the comforts of private life to fulfill his duty to his country. The British press guaranteed that this agreeable presentation was broadcast beyond an American audience, and common Anglo-American attitudes, such as suspicion of standing armies and self-seeking men, ensured a favorable reception in Britain. The result was a complimentary notion of Washington that transcended British political divisions for the duration of the conflict. When an American-authored poem dedicated to Washington was reprinted in London in 1780, the dissenting Whig Monthly Review and traditionally Tory Critical Review expressed a rare consensus. They agreed that the poem was poorly written, and they praised its subject. Although the Critical Review described Bostonians as a wretched people “used to tarring and feathering those who have been so unhappy as to offend them,” it described the rebel leader’s character as “very respectable” and proclaimed “we have a high opinion of his hero.” The Monthly Review concurred, describing Washington as “this modern Fabius”–a reference to the then well-known paragon of Roman republican virtue, Fabius Maximus.
The minority of Britons who outwardly supported the American patriots have captured historians’ interest for some time. Caroline Robbins and Bernard Bailyn laid the foundation, arguing that a common political heritage led many English men and women to sympathize with, if not publicly support, the American patriots. James Bradley, John Money, and J. H. Plumb have since demonstrated that pro-Americanism extended to the grassroots, spreading well beyond the confines of the metropolis and deep into the provinces. The representativeness and genuineness of pro-American sentiment have, however, been questioned. Growing recognition of the strength of popular loyalism in Britain has been accompanied by claims that the vast majority of the British supported the armed coercion of the colonists. Paul Langford and John Derry have shown that even most London radicals–among the most vocal sympathizers with the American cause–had only a shallow interest in the issue, seeing it primarily as a stick with which to beat the North administration. Bradley’s recent reassessment of the petition drive that preceded the war reveals that divisions ran along traditional fault lines–dissenters and successful artisans favoring conciliation; Anglican clergy, the professional class, and merchants supporting coercion. Stephen Conway and Frank O’Gorman both emphasize that mainstream opposition to the North ministry focused on the problems associated with mobilization and conduct of the war rather than the ideological underpinnings of the conflict. Any approach that condoned the Americans was not viable if opposition MPs hoped to gain power.
What is lacking in this historical discussion is recognition that there was a middle ground that encompassed a far wider spectrum of the population than historians have considered. Between adamant support for either side existed an enormous gray area in which most publicly expressed British sentiment fell. Although most Britons accepted the case for armed coercion, few proponents of the war reveled in the deaths of colonists. A letter written in Leeds and sent to the London Chronicle shortly after the outbreak of fighting exemplifies the general response, tempering calls for coercion with sighs of regret. “One of the People” remarked that “every man seems to be entertaining the public with his opinion on this interesting subject,” which justifies the author giving his position. “Matters between us and the Americans are now brought to such a crisis,” he observed, “as makes it the duty of every Englandman to interest himself in the success of his Majesty’s arms; and, since the sword is unhappily drawn, not to hesitate.” Regardless of political, economic, or religious affiliation, almost every Briton believed the war was a domestic tragedy–no matter who was to blame. As the preface to the Annual Register for 1775 woefully commented in its closing lines, “It is no longer our task to describe devastation in Poland, or slaughter on the Danube. The evil is at home.” In this context, public laments for the war were not the same as support for the American cause. Moreover, admiration for selected characteristics of Americans, such as fortitude or courage, could be divorced from politics, and thus praises of Washington could go hand-in-hand with denunciations of the colonists’ quest for independence. This seeming paradox is explained by the coexistence of Britons’ conservative reaction to the war and their lingering recognition of the American colonists as countrymen. An examination of Washington’s image in the British press not only adds a new dimension to the study of the man and his appeal but also sheds light on the multilayered reception of the American Revolution in Britain.
Washington’s positive image in Britain was a product of circumstances as much as his own actions. First, the changing nature of the British press allowed an open and informed discussion. Second, and not surprising given the shared heritage, the character and conduct that made Washington a success in American circles won him favor in Britain. Third, the absence of serious British-born competition made Washington’s achievements shine all the more brightly. Finally, Washington’s distance from the unpopular factional politics that plagued both sides of the Atlantic gave his image a unique luster. By avoiding public involvement in congressional politics, Washington distanced himself from the body that most Britons held responsible for the war, thus allowing the man to be judged on his own merits.
The newspaper and periodical press is an invaluable instrument for recapturing the public discussion surrounding Washington. During this period, newspapers were the hub of Britain’s popular politics and the nation’s primary source for information and forum for debate. Although illiteracy and cost excluded a large portion of Britain’s populace from this burgeoning print culture, newspaper reading extended to the upper tiers of the lower orders. By the 1770s, more than 140 newspapers, along with an array of magazines and periodicals, circulated in Britain, offering a diversity of commentary on a variety of topics. Annual circulation figures are impressive at a record 15.3 million copies in 1782–a number reached despite increases in the stamp tax. Such figures only begin to suggest the extent of the nation’s readership, especially considering that newspapers pouring into the thousands of London and provincial coffeehouses, pubs, and taverns could reach more than twenty readers each. These miniature parliaments were, according to a contemporary guide, key arenas of popular politics “where questions, political, civil and moral, are discussed, and everyone may give his opinion.” In the 1770s, this understanding reached new heights. After 1773, printers were able to print parliamentary debates without veiled headings such as “debates from the Senate of Lilliput” (as the Gentleman’s Magazine regularly called them) or waiting six months after the session. The vigorous coverage that followed made the American Revolution the first event in which the government’s handling of a controversial conflict was aired before an eager national audience. Furthermore, war in North America interrupted and restricted the regular flow of correspondence from the colonies, making newspapers more important than ever as organs of information.
On the eve of the American Revolution, the London newspapers were far from being the party bugles they are often assumed to have been. The strictly partisan press of the Walpole era had passed, giving way to newspapers that had political affiliations but expressed a diversity of sentiment. Although pamphleteers were still known to receive government payments, most newspapers’ revenue came from advertisements, not government subsidies or bribes. With few exceptions, they were business ventures that aimed to secure as large a readership as possible. Though displaying a political sympathy was one way to aid this, in order to win readers and advertisers, publishers had to be flexible, open to a diversity of opinion, and in touch with their readers’ political moods. Even the Morning Post and Morning Herald, recipients of substantial financial support from the king and the North ministry, were not mere apologist rags. Moreover, during the American Revolution public opinion regarding the conflict was too unstable and vexing for editors to take a precise stance with confidence. The Annual Register’s editor complained after half a year of war reporting that “the person whose lot it falls to describe the transactions of domestic hostility . . . has a painful and generally unthankful office. . . . It indeed little becomes us to be dogmatical and decided in our opinions in this matter, when the public, even on this side of the water, is so much divided.”
To inform readers about the war, British editors drew from a large range of sources, including letters from American colonists, letters from British soldiers in America, American exiles, extracts from colonial newspapers, veterans of the Seven Years’ War, rumors circulating around the coffeehouses, and government accounts. Extended coverage of Washington began when news of his appointment arrived in Britain in August 1775. Although remembered for his role in the Seven Years’ War, he was hardly a household name. The press was swift to print what information it could glean, and short biographies of Washington soon appeared alongside descriptions of other key figures. Editors nevertheless attempted to provide sound information, correcting themselves when better information surfaced. Many of the initial accounts were wildly inaccurate, but the biographical errors they contained do not appear to have been the work of political factions, as the errors would not have benefited any of them.Town and Country magazine printed one of the strangest in October 1775, reporting that Washington’s daughter had escaped to England after his servants accidentally killed her loyalist lover. One popular early sketch included such innocent mistakes as assigning Washington a Coventry birthplace and a family tie to the duke of Albemarle, but when an officer who had served in America wrote to set the record straight, his account was soon reprinted throughout the country. By Christmas 1775, most readers knew that Washington was, as the Annual Register for that year put it, “a gentleman of affluent fortune in Virginia . . . who had acquired considerable military experience, in the command of different bodies of the provincials in the last war.”
From his first appearance, Washington received excellent treatment in the press. The initial biographies, though brief, portrayed him in a generally favorable light. Though condemning the rebels, Scots Magazine printed as its main portrait of the general an article that concluded: “His is a man of sense and great integrity; his is polite, though rather reserved; he is now in the prime of his life, an exceeding fine figure, (at least six feet hight), and a very good countenance. There is much dignity and modesty in his manner.” Editors’ search for American war news meant that the speeches and proclamations Washington gave to stir his troops, win over teetering colonists, or calm wary civic authorities also reached British audiences. His correspondence with Congress and the British commanders was also a regular feature of the coverage of the war, covering pages at a time and making him one of the age’s most familiar figures. Washington handled himself admirably. Isaac Barré praised the general’s literary style before the Commons, comparing it favorably to the unnecessarily “flowery” language of the British commander in chief, Thomas Gage. More important, the message Washington’s words conveyed had a powerful impact. Just as they won him hearts in America, Washington’s speeches also gained the admiration of the British. When the Bath Chronicle printed his response to a congratulatory address on his appointment from the New York Assembly, the paper’s extract made clear his modesty, self-subordination to civil authorities, and lack of ambition. The Scots Magazine observed how this speech eased American fears that Washington might become another Cromwell, but Washington’s self-presentation on this and other occasions similarly influenced British commentators. With the exception of a few warning remarks immediately following his appointment, comparisons between Washington and Cromwell were absent from the British press.
Among the most surprising elements of the British portrayal of Washington is that plenty of material existed for the construction of an alternative depiction. British naval superiority and the occupation of New York City after September 1776 meant that American loyalists’ newspapers and letters were the predominant source of printed information from America. Invaluable for condemning Congress and the patriot cause, these resources were not regularly used to denounce Washington. When negative comments appeared, editors were quick to attribute these to embittered American loyalists, and they were almost never reprinted. Even Washington’s status as a major slaveholder, regularly noted in biographical sketches, was not used to discredit him. Yet declining an opportunity to criticize a major figure was rare; the British seemed to delight in denigrating everyone in the public eye. As a German visitor remarked in July 1782, “Twelve or more newspapers are brought out daily in London–some siding with Government, some with the Opposition. It is shocking how they seize every opportunity for personal abuse.”
Minor public criticism of Washington provoked swift responses. In a widely printed letter from “an Old Soldier” in 1778, Washington’s abilities and character received a mixed review. Although admitting that the American general had “performed wonders,” the author depicted Washington’s military skills as mediocre. Furthermore, the author questioned Washington’s professed modesty. The American general may not have been motivated by profit, “Old Soldier” noted, but “His ruling passion is military fame.” The letter was among the most balanced assessments of Washington in Britain, but it soon met with criticism. One irritated respondent summarized the more common view in a letter to the Public Advertiser: “The Americans are indebted, for the Stand they have hitherto made, to the Courage of the emigrant natives of this Island, and the Conduct of George Washington.” Even after the capture and controversial execution of Major John Andre, the British officer who arranged for the defection of Benedict Arnold in 1780, Washington escaped harsh criticism in the British press. The London Gazette, the official government newspaper, was the only metropolitan paper fully to condemn him. The Gentleman’s Magazine, which carried reports of Andre’s trial in great detail, offered a typical assessment, concluding that although Washington had the right to execute Andre according to the rules of war, British commanders had set more merciful precedents.The public’s disdain was reserved for Arnold. Even the pro-coercion Weekly Miscellany declared in January 1781, “We cannot but condemn the conduct of General Arnold, as a departure from the principles which, though wrong in themselves, he seems to have had no honourable motive to abandon. However pleasing the Treason may be, the Traitor ever meets with contempt.”
Despite its politically charged context, the portrayal of Washington does not bear the markings of a party contest: it did not become a battlefield on which various factions wrangled for their own ends. Representations do not appear to have been churned out by savvy propaganda machines, as most comments about Washington’s character appeared in passing, usually in connection with other war news. Lengthy epistles of praise or debates on his character were rare. The lack of intense party interest in Washington was largely because the development of his image did not neatly match the factions’ long-term agendas. The only exception was the handful of pro-American radicals, but they were too few and too disorganized to have forged and sustained any nationwide image, especially one of a rebel general. The mainstream parliamentary opposition was not concerned with giving the American Revolution an acceptable face after 1776. Open support of the American cause after the Declaration of Independence would have been political suicide given the nation’s pro-coercion mood. In consequence, the various opposition factions focused on the troubles caused by mobilization and the tactics of the North ministry and its generals. These arguments ultimately toppled the North ministry in 1782, when the nation had grown sufficiently tired of war and heavy taxation. Alternatively, ministries openly negotiating with the Americans could not have used Washington’s favorable image to give the appearance that they were handing the colonies over to a gentleman rather than a mob. His regular referrals of British proposals to Congress were reported in detail in the press, leading few, if any, Britons to recognize him as the rebellion’s primary leader. Anyone wanting to soften the blows of defeat by raising the character of the victor would have focused on Congress, yet its image was never rehabilitated.
In some cases, Washington’s image was used for personal agendas, but these instances only underline his standing as someone whose admirable qualities set him above petty political bickering. In 1780, a British charity raising funds to support American prisoners of war in Britain published the earlier-mentioned poetical tribute to Washington and the “Sketch of General Washington’s Life and Character.” The aim of the charity, the advertisement explained, was not to support the American patriot cause but rather to “stamp a lesson on the minds of those unfortunate captives, and our American brethren in general, that they should not withdraw all national affection from a country, the bulk of whose inhabitants have not withdrawn all national affection from them.” The selection of Washington as the fundraiser’s showpiece was intended to capitalize on this sense of damaged, but lingering, transatlantic affection. Washington’s image was thus meant to represent everything good about the American colonists and, even more, the British as a whole. As the Westminster Magazine remarked in its reprint of the biography, “It is somewhat singular, that even in England, not one reflection was ever cast, or the least disrespectful word uttered against him.”
General John Burgoyne, one of Washington’s military adversaries, made the most widely reported use of Washington’s popular image. After the surrender of his army at Saratoga in October 1777, Burgoyne returned to Britain on parole to defend his conduct as leader of the controversial and ill-fated campaign. His defense of his conduct in late May 1778 before the House of Commons, of which he was a member, received widespread coverage in the press. Washington won initial favor with the public for generously allowing the defeated general to return home to protect his honor, but his greatest coup came later. In defense of his actions, Burgoyne produced a letter that he had solicited from Washington, vindicating the defeated general of any unbecoming conduct. Read in the House of Commons, this testimony was given prominence in the extensive press coverage of the event. The letter, which embodied Washington’s sense of fair play and generosity to his enemies, was reprinted throughout Britain, allowing the public to read in Washington’s own words his unbiased concern for honor and justice, whether it be his own or his enemy’s. “Far from suffering the views of national opposition to be embittered and debased by personal animosity,” Washington’s letter assured, “I am ever ready to do justice to the merit of the gentleman and the soldier; and to esteem, where esteem is due, however the idea of a public enemy may interpose.” The perceived justice of Washington’s actions was contrasted with the ministry’s efforts to deny Burgoyne either a full hearing in the Commons or a court martial, although he demanded both. Many articles called for more information about the surprising defeat and found the silencing of Burgoyne distasteful. The Public Advertiser summarized the public mood in a comment after reprinting the letter: “Let every Englishman contrast the behavior of General Washington with that of the Junto [main advisors and leaders of the North government], since General Burgoyne’s arrival.” The magnanimity of the American commander shamed the ministry.
Washington was universally portrayed as generous to his enemies, rising above the pressure of the civil war context in which resentment could easily spill on to the battlefield. In November 1775, the Scots Magazine endorsed Washington’s letters to Gage, scolding the British commander for the unjust treatment of American prisoners of war in Boston. Washington was said to have declared that he was taking excellent care of his prisoners without consideration of their political disposition and expected the same of Gage. Descriptions of plundering by German auxiliaries contrasted sharply with Washington’s reported orders on the eve of taking Trenton–held by a Hessian garrison–forbidding “plundering any person whatsoever, whether Tories or others.” Accounts of his returning property pillaged by the Hessians to civilians after the battle won further praise. Even Jackson’s Oxford Journal, which catered to a traditionally Tory local market that loathed the American cause, called Washington “The Flower of American Chivalry.” In March 1778, the Public Advertiser announced that Washington had surrounded British-occupied Philadelphia but would have mercy on civilians and enemy soldiers alike. Learning that they were “in great Distress for Provision,” Washington allegedly allowed nearby inhabitants “to carry whatever Provisions they please into the City.” The paper surmised his reasoning: “He does not wish to reduce the British Army by Famine, as that would greatly distress the Inhabitants, being determined to clear his Country of these Invaders by other means.” The ministry-backed Morning Post printed a letter supposedly intercepted from a French officer that described Washington’s virtues and kindness to his opponents: “Gen Washington is continually recommending humanity, and when any prisoners are made, he is the first to desire that they may not be ill treated . . . his courage and disinterestedness are equal to his humanity.” In victory, he was portrayed as magnanimous. False reports circulated that he had even graciously refused to accept Lord General Cornwallis’s sword at the British surrender at Yorktown, insisting that the British general keep it, an action widely noted as being “in praise of General Washington.”
Washington’s favorable image reflected Britons’ dissatisfaction with their own leaders, who were thought to be wholly lacking in the celebrated civic virtues of the heroes of the Roman and Greek republics. Horace Walpole, diarist and social critic, best described the deficiency just weeks before the outbreak of war: “We are given up to profusion, extravagance and pleasure–Heroism is not at all in fashion. Cincinnatus will be found at the hazard table, and Camillus at a ball.” The natural choice of a patriot hero was the king, but George III had not yet won widespread admiration and with it the affectionate title of “Farmer George.” Until the heroes of the Napoleonic Wars filled the Pantheon of St. Paul’s, General James Wolfe was the best candidate from the military arena. Although poetry featuring him won an Oxford prize as late at the 1770s, Wolfe’s lingering popularity was not a serious contender. First, Wolfe fought in a battle that the public fully expected the British to win. Second, he died on the fields of Quebec, ending the previously little-known general’s opportunity to repeat his noble deeds. Unlike Washington during the American Revolution, Wolfe did not have his speeches publicly scrutinized for nearly a decade. If Wolfe had been an American patriot, his legacy probably would have been similar to that of Richard Montgomery, the American rebel general who died sixteen years after Wolfe, also attempting to take Quebec. When news reached Britain of the failed attack on the city, Montgomery’s heroic, but fatal, charge appealed to the nation. The London Evening Post bordered a lengthy eulogy in black, and North was forced to admit in the Commons that Montgomery was “brave, able, humane, and generous.” By the summer, however, anti-American writers felt safe to deride him, and by winter he was all but forgotten.
The opprobrium attached to the British commanders in chief contrasts markedly with Washington’s treatment. Gage, Washington’s first counterpart, suffered for having presided over the deterioration of Anglo-American relations in the 1760s and early 1770s. Britons who feared that colonial tensions would damage British trading interests thought Gage an incompetent buffoon; to those who sympathized with the colonists’ grievances, Gage personified British aggression in America. When he was under siege in the summer of 1775 at Boston, any remaining confidence in Gage’s abilities evaporated, and even after he was recalled, the disgraced commander received parting shots. The Saint James’s Chronicle comically announced that Gage was returning to London disguised as his American wife, while she was to assume command of the troops at Boston–a post she could fill better than her husband. The same paper also announced that Gage was carrying “with him the Portraits of Mess. Hancock, Adams, Washington, and Putman [sic]. We hope he means to apologize in the politest Manner, to a certain Royal Connoisseur, for not having been able to procure him the Originals.”
Gage’s replacement, Sir William Howe, was treated little better. Howe started his command on a bad footing by abandoning Boston. When news reached the British press in spring 1776, the most favorable reporting Howe received was a small applause for a meticulously executed retreat. In contrast, Washington gained praise for showing “tenderness” to Howe by allowing him to evacuate unmolested. The story of Washington’s now-celebrated refusal to acknowledge the correspondence of the British commissioners so long as their letters did not recognize his position as commander in chief, was widely printed and admired in Britain. The letters between Washington and Howe over the exchange of prisoners were also extensively publicized, showing that Washington could battle with a pen as well as a sword. Washington’s image benefited from British frustration with Howe’s inability to achieve a decisive victory. Washington and his army were portrayed as always one step ahead of Howe, lying in wait to repossess British gains as soon as Howe grew frustrated and abandoned his position. Whereas Washington won admirers in defeat and retreat, Howe satisfied no one even in victory. When Howe took New York in 1776, the British withheld public praise because Washington escaped. When Howe took Philadelphia the following year, Howe still did not win the public’s favor, as his triumph was overshadowed by the almost simultaneous announcement of Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga. As commander in chief, Howe was held partly responsible by commentators who feared that the surrender of New York would shortly follow. The pro-coercion Caledonian Mercury printed a letter from a reader addressed to Howe, harshly condemning him: “The loss of America, the ruin of your country’s greatness, an indelible disgrace fixed upon the honour of its arms, the lives of many brave men sacrificed to no purpose . . . these, Sir, form the melancholy catalogue of your achievements.” Even the highly pro-ministry Morning Post carried criticisms of the British commander’s strategy, declaring “The History of our American Campaigns must excite Laughter whenever it shall be published.” “And what must the King of Prussia think of General Howe,” a reader pondered, “who drew up his Army in Front of Washington’s Lines, looked at him, then wheeled to the Right about and–decamped?” The response to this query soon appeared in the Public Advertiser, which declared Frederick too was “said to be a great Admirer of General Washington.” “This attachment,” explained the commentator, “may proceed from Resemblance . . . of the General to the last Count Dawn, who always looked upon Victory as Uncertain; who never despised his Enemy; who always took Care to secure a Retreat . . . who never engaged rashly, but had the Art of preserving his Troops for some effective and noble Purpose; who, in short, knew how to out-wit his Adversary.” “Such was the great Leopald Count Dawn,” the article concluded, “and such is the great General George Washington.”
Unable to find a Cincinnatus among their own generals, Britons increasingly turned to Washington for the exemplary hero who served his country rather than himself. Even the Edinburgh Advertiser–perhaps the most vehemently anti-American newspaper in Britain–touted his merits.  The January 20, 1778, issue opened with a by-then-familiar attack on Britain’s military leaders, blaming their self-serving character for the nation’s woes. If Roman, Greek, and Crusader generals had fought without seeking pay and place, a reader’s letter declared, “Britain does not deserve a less noble sacrifice.” For a contemporary example, the author turned to Washington, declaring “Let us not, Mr. Printer, disdain to learn virtue even from a rebel.”  By the 1780s, praise was unreserved and unabashed. The Westminster Magazine declared:
With one common voice he [Washington] was called forth to the defence of his country; and it is, perhaps, his peculiar glory, that there was not a single inhabitant of these States, except himself, who did not approve the choice, and place the firmest confidence in his integrity and abilities. . . . That nature has given him extraordinary military talents will hardly be controverted by his most bitter enemies. . . . when, I say, all this comes to be impartially considered, I think I may venture to pronounce, that General Washington will be regarded by mankind as one of the greatest military ornaments of the present age, and that his name will command the veneration of the latest posterity. 
Such high praise, in fact, was considered sufficiently lavish to appear in an American press that often fawned over the commander in chief. A highly flattering sketch of Washington “[written] for the London Chronicle” [see Figure I], was reprinted in newspapers in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.  By the conclusion of the war, endorsements of Washington’s character in the British press were virtually universal. The London Packet was the first of a host of London and provincial papers that carried the following praise:
General Washington, we are well informed had, at the outset of the American war, an estate of at least 8000l a year. He has received no pay from the Congress as Commander in Chief, except the expense of his table, which his friends insisted upon disbursing, as that is greatly increased by the post he holds in the army. He has often been solicited to reside in a House; but, determined to share the fate of his officers and soldiers, he prefers living in camp, nor does he indulge himself in any excesses at his table, contented to live with, and as his brother soldiers do. Possessed of this temper, he is the darling of his army, and will certainly be received by posterity as one of the most illustrious characters of the age in which he lived. 
The key to Washington’s transcendence of the squabbles of metropolitan party politics was his apparent distance from the faction-ridden politics of the day. The press held factionalism accountable for the troubles that afflicted the legislatures on both sides of the Atlantic, and British admiration of Washington reflected a readiness to embrace anyone who rose above it. From the beginning, newspapers and magazines across the political spectrum concurred that political rivalries and bickering were the causes of a disappointing British war effort. Although the public disagreed about which party was dividing the nation, thus further fueling the division, most blame fell on the parliamentary opposition, which was accused of encouraging the Americans for political gain. Even the generally anti-ministry Public Advertiser printed a letter asking why the opposition “abandoned all Regard to Patriotism and Principle” in order to “uphold the drooping Cause of their selfish Ambition?” Further aiding the perception of Washington’s uniqueness was his British counterparts’ participation in factional politics. Burgoyne took up his seat in the House of Commons after returning on parole, sitting with the opposition. The Howes did the same. In February 1779, the Morning Post typically accused the bitter and by then replaced Howe brothers of acting in collusion with the opposition to bring down the ministry: “The H—- certainly never intended to put an end to the rebellion, till they had, at the conjunction with their party in England, displaced the present Ministry.” A widely reprinted letter, also first appearing in the Morning Post, best summarized the fallen British generals’ new affiliations and motives: “The Generals who had been so unsuccessful are returned home, they have both, in order to save themselves from justice, united with Opposition, and have left nothing unattempted to incriminate the Administration.”
The British press characterized Congress even more harshly, blaming it for stubbornly initiating and then carrying on the unpopular war, and Washington’s apparent distance from that body added to his good standing in Britain. High hopes were held for Congress’s initial resolutions, but the Declaration of Independence turned the vast majority of Britons firmly against it. As the formerly sympathetic Saint James’s Chronicle observed, “Before that fatal Error of the Congress . . . America had as many Advocates as Government; now every Man feels his Interest inseparably involved in the Success or Failure of the Mother Country.” Whereas Washington was portrayed as embodying British gentlemanly virtues, Congress was viewed as failing to meet traditional criteria of legitimacy. As the war progressed, Congress was increasingly accused of corruption, tyranny, and abuse of power. A close political association to Congress was lethal to one’s image in Britain. Benjamin Franklin, the best-known colonist before the war, was treated brutally. In a typical sketch of the “Life and Character of Dr. Franklin” in 1780, the Political Magazine labeled him the “author and encourager of the American rebellion.” “By his dark machinations,” it declared, “this man has betrayed the Americans into arms against the mother country, which has cost them the lives of upwards of 100,000 of their people.” When trying to portray Edmund Burke as traitor to his nation, a Morning Chronicle reader called him “the correspondent of Dr. Franklin.” The Political Magazine attacked Franklin again in a collection of short descriptions of American leaders. “Ancient or modern history scarcely furnishes an example of such consummate hypocrisy, and hitherto successful duplicity,” the magazine proclaimed, “and if the axe, or the haltar, are to be employed on this occasion, it were much to be wished the first example could be made of this hoary traitor.” In contrast, the magazine’s single objection to Washington was merely that “His abilities are of that mediocrity which creates no jealousy.”
Washington’s visible self-subordination to civil authorities was a shield for his image in Britain. According to the press, the relationship between Congress and Washington was not always harmonious, but Washington nevertheless always answered to it. Whether Washington could in reality have usurped Congress is not the issue. In Britain, the press made it clear that supporting officers and a disintegrating Congress meant that dictatorial power was his for the taking, yet Washington remained the loyal general. Washington did not appear even to take an interest in American politics. From the British perspective, Washington could have been a Caesar or a Cromwell, but chose to be a Cincinnatus. As the best-selling newspaper in Europe admiringly stated, Washington “will certainly be received by posterity as one of the most illustrious characters of the age in which he lived.” At the conclusion of the war, only two items pertaining to America received widespread coverage: one was the peace treaty and its preliminaries; the other, Washington’s farewell address to the army.
George Washington’s popularity in Britain resulted from a mixture of his conduct and accidents of timing. To woo colonists and fulfill his own sense of how a commander should behave, Washington fashioned himself as a citizen-soldier, ever ready to fight for his country without any expectation of material reward. Washington’s reported endurance, perseverance, courage, and politeness were the foundations of American and British heroism. The British press communicated this example to British audiences, who were frustrated with their own commanders and tired of their corrupt leaders. Washington’s ability to remove himself from politics insured his popularity despite general disdain for the American cause. He publicly followed the orders of Congress; if the orders were disagreeable, then Congress was to blame. But there is more to Washington’s success than that. Britons’ willingness to praise an unsuccessful rebel commander while disparaging their own generals reflected widespread feeling about the war and the state of the nation’s leadership. Although the case for coercion was widely accepted, the British went to war with the greatest reluctance. Tens of thousands signed petitions calling for conciliation; thousands more avoided military service. At the height of the Napoleonic Wars, popular support for the war effort enabled Britain to recruit 800,000 volunteers in arms; in order to conduct a war in America, Britain had to hire a third of its force from German princes. The public demanded victory, but it winced at news of dead colonists. In this context, no British leader could expect popularity, and the absence of British-born competition allowed Washington’s image to shine.
Like Cincinnatus, Washington disbanded his army at the close of the war and retired to his farm. This final action ensured his legacy as a hero and embodiment of an Anglo-American interpretation of civic virtues. More than a decade later, when Britain once more faced a republican threat, this time from France, Washington was still the hero. In 1797, the Westminster Forum, a middling London debating society, debated whether Thomas Paine’s printed attack on “the Character of General Washington” deserved “the reprobation of every Friend of Liberty and Humanity.” Two days later, the Morning Herald reported that the affirmative was “carried with universal approbation, by an audience consisting of upwards of five hundred persons, among whom . . . [were] several Noblemen, Magistrates, and Gentlemen of the first respectability of the Country.” Washington was applauded once again, but this time he was a conservative, receiving praise for opposing the radicalism of a new revolution.
Troy Bickham is an assistant professor at Southeast Missouri State University. He wishes to thank his fellow graduate students and former colleagues at Oxford University and the following people for their comments on this piece in its various stages, although none should be held accountable for its errors: Joanna Innes, Daniel Walker Howe and Oxford’s Atlantic World Seminar, Sarah Knott, John Stevenson, and Paul Langford. A special thanks is due the anonymous readers for the William and Mary Quarterly for their insightful comments and patience.
1 New Englanders were often portrayed in Britain as the most radical proponents of independence from the outset. For examples, see Public Advertiser, July 29, 1774; Morning Chronicle, Mar. 22, Aug. 20, 1774; Saint James’s Chronicle, Jan. 5, 1774, Mar. 6, 1776; Gentleman’s Magazine (Nov. 1777), 528–29. Also see Mary Beth Norton, The British-Americans: The Loyalist Exiles in England, 1774–1789 (Boston, 1972), 44–47.
2 See esp. Barry Schwartz, George Washington: The Making of an American Symbol (New York, 1987); Marcus Cunliffe, In Search of America: Transatlantic Essays, 1951–1990 (Westport, Conn., 1991); Garry Wills, George Washington and the Enlightenment (London, 1984); Richard Brookhiser, Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington (London, 1996); and Paul K. Longmore, The Invention of George Washington (Berkeley, 1988).
3 Longmore, Invention of George Washington, esp. chap. 15.
4 A Poetical Epistle to His Excellency George Washington, Esq. . . . To which is Annexed a Short General Sketch of General Washington’s Life and Character (London, 1780). The pamphlet is a slightly altered reprint of a pamphlet that had appeared first in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1779, to which a new foreword had been added. It was printed and distributed primarily by Charles Dilly and John Almon in London, two major London publishers and booksellers, but it also had advertised distributors in York, Cambridge, Bath, and Bristol.
5 Critical Review (Apr. 1779), 310 (on Bostonians); ibid. (June 1780), 472–74 (on Washington); “Poetical Epistle to his Excellency George Washington, Esq. . . . ,” Monthly Review, 62 (May 1780), 389–91. Fabius was given temporary dictatorial powers in order to expel Hannibal from the Italian peninsula. The history of ancient Rome and its characters were standard components of a middling and upper-ranking Briton’s education, and as a result classical references were common in newspapers. Many readers would have been particularly familiar with him from William Melmoth’s popular Anecdotes of some of the most Distinguished Characters of the Ancients. His popular account of Fabius also appeared as the leading story of the London Chronicle, Mar. 7, 1778.
6 Robbins, The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman: Studies in the Transmission, Development, and Circumstances of English Liberal Thought from the Restoration of Charles II until the War with the Thirteen Colonies (Cambridge, Mass., 1959); Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 1967). See also J.G.A. Pocock, Virtue, Commerce, and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, 1985), esp. chap. 4.
7 Bradley, Popular Politics and the American Revolution in England: Petitions, the Crown, and Public Opinion (Macon, Ga., 1986); Money, “Taverns, Coffee Houses and Clubs: Local Politics and Popular Articulacy in the Birmingham Area, in the Age of the American Revolution,” Historical Journal, 14 (1971), 15–47; Plumb, “British Attitudes to the American Revolution,” in his In the Light of History (London, 1972), 70–87. On metropolitan support for the American cause see John Sainsbury, Disaffected Patriots: London Supporters of Revolutionary America, 1769–1782 (Montreal, 1987).
8 See esp. Linda Colley, “The Apotheosis of George III: Loyalty, Royalty, and the British Nation, 1760–1820,” Past and Present, No. 102 (1984), 94–129, and Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837 (New Haven and London, 1992), 43–45; Kathleen Wilson, The Sense of the People: Politics, Culture, and Imperialism in England, 1715–1785 (Cambridge, 1995); Eliga H. Gould, “American Independence and Britain’s Counter-Revolution,” Past and Present, No. 154 (1997), 107–41.
9 Langford, “London and the American Revolution,” in John Stevenson, ed., London in the Age of Reform (Oxford, 1977), 61, and Derry, English Politics and the American Revolution (New York, 1976), 188.
10 Bradley, “The British Public and the American Revolution: Ideology, Interest, and Opinion,” in H. T. Dickinson, ed., Britain and the American Revolution (London, 1998), 124–54.
11 O’Gorman, “The Parliamentary Opposition to the Government’s American Policy, 1760–1782,” in Dickinson, ed., Britain and the American Revolution, 97–123, and Conway, The British Isles and the War of American Independence (Oxford, 2000), 149–55.
12 “One of the People” to London Chronicle, June 24, 1775. The letter was dated June 6.
13 Annual Register for 1775, preface.
14 For studies of the press, see esp. John Feather, “The Power of Print: Word and Image in Eighteenth-Century England,” in Jeremy Black, ed., Culture and Society in Britain, 1660–1800 (Manchester, 1997), 51–68; Black, The English Press in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1987); Robert Harris, A Patriot Press: National Politics and the London Press in the 1740s (Oxford, 1993); Robert R. Rea, The English Press in Politics, 1760–1774 (Lincoln, Neb., 1963); and Hannah Barker, Newspapers, Politics, and English Society, 1695–1855 (Harlow, 2000).
15 John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1997), 183–85; Don Herzog, Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders (Princeton, 1998), 52–60; Steve Pincus, “‘Coffee Politicians Does Create’: Coffeehouses and Restoration Political Culture,” Journal of Modern History, 67 (1995), 807–34.
16 Dora Mae Clark, British Opinion and the American Revolution (New Haven, 1930), 7; A. Aspinall, “Statistical Accounts of the London Newspapers in the Eighteenth Century,” English Historical Review, 63 (1948), 201–32; Brewer, Party Ideology and Popular Politics at the Accession of George III (Cambridge, 1976), 157, estimates that each individual newspaper had 20 readers on average; there is not an exact count of the number of meeting places in Britain during the American Revolution, but Bryant Lillywhite, in London Coffee Houses: A Reference Book of Coffee Houses of the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Centuries (London, 1963), 23, estimates that as early as 1739, London alone had 551 coffeehouses, 207 inns, and 447 taverns.
17 John Trusler, London Adviser and Guide (London, 1786), 163–65.
18 Even American loyalist exiles relied heavily on newspapers and coffeehouses. For examples of Americans gathering in coffeehouses to read newspapers in different parts of Britain, see esp. Andrew Oliver, ed., The Journal of Samuel Curwen, Loyalist, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1972), 1:199–200, 417, 443, 511, 2:566, 570, 596, 695.
19 Michael Harris, “The Structure, Ownership, and Control of the Press, 1620–1780,” in George Boyce, James Curran, and Pauline Wingate, eds., Newspaper History from the Seventeenth Century to the Present Day (London, 1978), 93–96, and Barker, Newspapers, Politics, and Public Opinion in Late Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford, 1998), chap. 2. Barker asserts that London newspapers had political allegiances and reflected high political divisions, but these alignments were not hard and fast; many newspapers attempted moderate positions and virtually all newspapers carried a diversity of sentiments.
20 On the success of newspaper advertising see Aspinall, “Statistical Accounts of the London Newspapers.” Advertising duties collected by the Audit Office rose from £1,000 in 1713 to £27,000 in 1772 and then to £50,000 in 1786.
21 On government financial support of these two papers see Solomon Lutnick, The American Revolution and the British Press, 1775–1783 (Columbia, Mo., 1967), 24–26, 31–36. Although the majority of published material in these papers was favorable to the North ministry, both regularly carried pro-coercion criticisms of the government’s handling of the war, and neither maligned Washington’s image.
22 Annual Register for 1775, preface.
23 One notable example is the “spurious” letters, which were written by New York loyalists. A handful of London newspapers printed one or two, and they appeared together in pamphlet form. However, the pamphlet does not appear to have been widely circulated, and the letters were not reprinted in the provincial newspapers. Furthermore, they were largely rejected as being false, or at least questionable, and readers were warned to keep this in mind. For examples, see Critical Review (July 1777), 70; Monthly Review, 56 (June 1777); Scots Magazine (June 1777), 320, and even the introduction to Letters from General Washington to several of his Friends in the Year 1776 . . . (London, 1777). The letters aroused no commentary and do not seem to have affected his image in Britain. If anything, as the Monthly Review stated, “they would do great honour to General Washington, could his claim to them be indisputably established.”
24 Most inaccuracies pertained to the extent of his wealth, military service, age, and relations. For examples, see Annual Register for 1775, 141; Gentleman’s Magazine (Aug. 1775), 401; Morning Post, Sept. 4, 1775; London Packet, Sept. 22, Oct. 20, 1775; Scots Magazine (Oct. 1775), 561–62; and London Chronicle, Oct. 19, 1775.
25 Town and Country Magazine (Oct. 1775), 518–19; London Chronicle, Oct. 26, 1775.
26 Annual Register for 1775, 141.
27 Scots Magazine (Oct. 1775), 562.
28 London Gazette, Sept. 19, 1775; Saint James’s Chronicle, Sept. 21, 1775; Gentleman’s Magazine (Sept. 1775), 446–49; R. C. Simmons and P.D.G. Thomas, eds., Proceedings and Debates of the British Parliaments Respecting North America, 1754–1783, 6 vols. (White Plains, N. Y., 1987), 6:117.
29 Bath Chronicle, Aug. 10, 1775.
30 Scots Magazine (Aug. 1775), 436.
31 The handful of examples that I have found all appeared in Lloyd’s Evening Post and dealt with fears that Washington’s army would sack New York. See, for examples, Jan. 6, 15, 1777, Aug. 27, 1781.
32 Entry for July 14, 1782, in Carl Philip Moritz, Journeys of a German in England, 1782, trans. and ed. Reginald Nettel (New York, 1965), 184.
33 “Old Soldier,” in Lloyd’s Evening Post, Aug. 17, 1778; Public Advertiser, Aug. 17, 1778; Gentleman’s Magazine (Aug. 1778), 369-70.
34 Public Advertiser, Aug. 22, 1778.
35 Gentleman’s Magazine, Supplement (1780), 610–16.
36 A featured editorial in the Westminster Magazine, Supplement (1780), 690. For other examples, see Morning Chronicle, Nov. 17, 1780, and London Packet, Jan. 4, 1782.
37 For examples, see Morning Post, Sept. 4, 1775, Feb. 18, 1788; Gentleman’s Magazine (Sept. 1776), 431; ibid., (Dec. 1776), 548–51; and Saint James’s Chronicle, Sept. 26, Dec. 7, 1776.
38 Poetical Epistle to His Excellency George Washington, Esq.
39 Westminster Magazine (Aug. 1780), 413.
40 Most London papers carried the parliamentary debate over several issues. The London Chronicle, for example, devoted substantial attention to the debate in the issues of May 28, 30, June 18, 1776. The Morning Chronicle generally was acknowledged as providing the best coverage of the parliamentary debates, and its version therefore appeared in the majority of London papers as well as provincial papers such as Ipswich Journal, May 30, June 6, 1776; Jackson’s Oxford Journal, June 6, 1776; Bath Chronicle, June 4, 1776.
41 Morning Post, May 18, 1778.
42 The letter was usually printed alongside Burgoyne’s testimony. It was printed separately in the Gentleman’s Magazine (June 1778), 1–2 and Scots Magazine (May 1778), 251. It was also reprinted as an appendix to the well-known parliamentary reporter John Almon’s account of The Substance of General Burgoyne’s Speeches, on Mr. Vyner’s Motion, On the 26th of May; and upon Mr. Hartley’s Motion, On the 28th of May 1778; with an Appendix, Containing General Washington’s Letter to General Burgoyne, 3d ed. (London, 1778), which had at least 4 London editions in 1778 alone.
43 Public Advertiser, June 17, 1778. The paper sold an estimated 3,000 copies daily.
44 Scots Magazine (Nov. 1775), 587–88.
45 For examples, see Saint James’s Chronicle, Aug. 6, 1776; Scots Magazine (Feb. 1777), 76–79; ibid. (Mar. 1777), 141; Gazetteer, Nov. 22, 1777; Public Advertiser, Aug. 29, 1778; The Detail and Conduct of the American War, under Generals Gage, Howe, Burgoyne, and Vice Admiral Lord Howe . . . , 3d ed. (London, 1780), 41–43, 100–09.
46 Jackson’s Oxford Journal, Dec. 7, 1776.
47 Public Advertiser, Mar. 25, 1778.
48 Morning Post, July 2, 1779. For the Morning Post’s affiliation with the North ministry, see Lutnick, American Revolution and the British Press, 24–25, and Lucyle Werkmeister, The London Daily Press, 1772–1792 (Lincoln, Neb., 1963), chap. 1.
49 Morning Chronicle, Jan. 1, 1782; London Packet, Jan. 2, 1782.
50 Walpole to Horace Mann, Mar. 20, 1775, in W. S. Lewis et al., eds., The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, 48 vols. (London, 1937–1983), 24:86.
51 The award was the Chancellor’s Academic Prize for the poem “Conquest of Quebec.” The poem appeared in Town and Country Magazine (Jan. 1770), 25–31.
52 North, quoted in Lutnick, American Revolution and the British Press, 93.
53 Saint James’s Chronicle, Sept. 23, 1775.
54 Ibid., Sept. 16, 1775.
55 Morning Chronicle, May 17, 1776; London Evening Post, May 4, 1776.
56 Saint James’s Chronicle, May 21, 1776.
57 Howe addressed the letter to “George Washington, esq.,” thus overlooking his official capacity. Saint James’s Chronicle, Sept. 26, 1776; Gentleman’s Magazine (Sept. 1776), 431; Annual Register for 1776, 168–69.
58 For examples, see Lloyd’s Evening Post, Oct. 17, 1776; Saint James’s Chronicle, Oct. 19, 1776; Gazetteer, Nov. 1, 3, Dec. 8, 9, 1777; Public Advertiser, Jan. 2, Feb. 24, 1778; London Chronicle, Jan. 3, 15, 1778; Gentleman’s Magazine (Feb. 1778), 89. The London Chronicle carried a series of letters from “F. D.” attacking Howe in January and February 1779 as well as particularly fierce attacks from other readers on Jan. 3, 15, 1778, and July 24, Aug. 26, 1779.
59 London Chronicle, Jan. 1, 1778; Edinburgh Advertiser, Jan. 2, 1778; Public Advertiser, Jan. 2, 12, 1778.
60 Caledonian Mercury, Dec. 30, 1778; reprinted Scots Magazine (Dec. 1778), 634–37.
61 Morning Post, Jan. 6, 1778.
62 Public Advertiser, June 18, 1778.
63 The Scots’ anti-American stance was more aggressive and public than elsewhere. See esp. Conway, British Isles and the American War, 132–33, and Robert Kent Donovan, “The Popular Party of the Church of Scotland and the American Revolution,” in Richard B. Sher and Jeffrey R. Smitten, eds., Scotland and America in the Age of the Enlightenment (Edinburgh, 1990), 81–99.
64 Edinburgh Advertiser, Jan. 20, 1778.
65 Westminster Magazine (Aug. 1780), 416.
66 London Chronicle, July 20–22, 1780, 68. See New Jersey Gazette, Dec. 6, 1780; Norwich [Conn.] Packet, Dec. 26, 1780; and Continental Journal and Weekly Advertiser (Boston), Jan. 4, 1781. I am grateful to Sarah Knott for these references.
67 London Packet, Jan. 4, 1782.
68 For examples, see Saint James’s Chronicle, Aug. 13, 1776; Gazetteer, Aug. 23, 1776; Edinburgh Advertiser, Jan. 16, 1778; Morning Post, Mar. 4, 1778, June 4, July 2, 1779; Public Advertiser, June 8, 1778; Morning Chronicle, Feb. 17, 1780.
69 Public Advertiser, June 8, 1778.
70 Morning Post, Feb. 18, 1779.
71 Morning Post, June 21, 1779.
72 Saint James’s Chronicle, Dec. 12, 1776.
73 Widespread criticism of Congress came across the political spectrum of the press, especially after the arrival of the Declaration of Independence. For some vivid examples, see London Packet, Jan. 22, Sept. 27, 1775; Saint James’s Chronicle, Sept. 19, 1775, Aug. 8, May 25, June 6, Nov. 21, Dec. 3, 1776; Jackson’s Oxford Journal, Aug. 24, 1776; Morning Chronicle, Oct. 16, 1776, Feb. 18, July 1, 1780; Gazetteer, Feb. 10, 1779; Public Advertiser, June 9, 1778; Morning Post, June 6, 1778; Gentleman’s Magazine (Oct. 1778), 489.
74 Political Magazine (Oct. 1780), 631.
75 Morning Chronicle, Jan. 12, 1782.
76 Political Magazine, July 1782, 445.
77 For examples, see Saint James’s Chronicle, Mar. 9, Nov. 7, Dec. 25, 1776; Bath Chronicle, Aug. 17, 1776; Jackson’s Oxford Journal, Aug. 17, 1776; Lloyd’s Evening Post, Jan. 13, 15, 1777; London Gazette, Mar. 22, 1777; and Morning Post, Mar. 11, 1779. The army’s dissatisfaction with Congress in summer 1783 was reported in, among others, Gentleman’s Magazine (Aug. 1783), 697–99, and Scots Magazine (July 1783), 381–82, (Aug. 1783), 438–39.
78 London Chronicle, Jan. 5, 1782. On its popularity, see James Boswell, Life of Johnson, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford, 1970), 225–26.
79 The address was reprinted in, among other places, the London Chronicle, Dec. 27, 1783. Most newspapers and magazines reprinted it in full.
80 Morning Herald, Feb. 2, 1797, quoted in entries 2026, 2028, 2029, in Donna T. Andrew, London Debating Societies, 1776–1799, London Record Society, 30 (London, 1994), 353.
By: Troy O. Bickham